May 22 2012

Video Game Violence

A recent study looking at the correlation between video game violence and real world actions found a significant correlation, and that’s what the authors were hoping to find. The study was not looking at the propensity for violent video games to increase real world aggression or violence, but rather as a training tool.

Researchers compared several groups – playing a video game involving shooting at a human, shooting at a target, and non-shooting game, and also the shooting games either used a realistic gun-controller or a standard controller (like a joystick). They then had each group shoot a real gun at a human mannequin. They found that the group who played the video game involving shooting at humans with a gun-like controller had the highest accuracy overall including the most head shots. In the nonviolent shooting (using a target) there was not much of a difference between the gun vs non-gun controllers. The non-shooting video game did slightly worse overall on accuracy but significantly lower on head shots.

The results are not that surprising. Essentially they show that using a video game simulation of an activity does improve the real world skill, and the more similar the video game (in this case using a gun-like controller) the better the training. I was a bit surprised that the gun vs non-gun was not significantly different in the target shooting game.

The authors of the study discuss two factors at work here. The first is mechanistic transfer – the transfer of skills from one task to another, in this case from video game performance to real world performance. They also note Thorndike’s 1932 theory of identical elements: the more identical elements there are between two tasks, the greater the mechanistic transfer of skills. In this case, the more closely the video game controller and experience mimicked the real world task of shooting a gun at a humanoid mannequin, the greater the benefit of the training.

This all sounds like common sense, and it is, but not everything that makes sense turns out to be true, so it’s good to have experimental verification. Further, there is a growing industry of products making essentially the opposite claim, that games can transfer skills in a more general way, not limited to the specificity of identical elements. This is the “train your brain” marketing phenomenon, the notion that doing a certain cognitive task will make you more intelligent in general.

To state this another way – how far do skills learned through training (whether video game or other types of tasks) transfer to other tasks? They certainly improve the task itself, but they don’t seem to increase overall intelligence – but where do we draw the line in between? This is still an open question and the subject of research, but at present it seems that the skills do not transfer very far. A large study I wrote about two years ago showed that video game training skills did not transfer to the general category of cognitive ability – such as memory, language skill, problem solving, or visual skill. Subjects performed better in the specific task they practiced, but this did not transfer to different tasks involving the same kind of cognitive skill. In my opinion this was a stake in the heart of the “brain training” industry.

Given that it has been recognized since the 1930s ala Thorndike that identical elements matter when task training, it seems like the current flirtation with generalized brain training is a temporary aberration, in my opinion largely brought about by the marketing of brain training products. The current study is in line with the classic view that if you want to improve your skill in a specific task you will want your training to be as close as possible to the real thing.

The second effect the researchers claim is at work in their study is operant conditioning. Subjects who were rewarded for hitting the target, especially with a head shot (which resulted in an instant kill) were more likely to aim for the head in the real-life situation – they performed the behavior for which they were recently rewarded. Their increased accuracy may have also made them more likely to shoot for the smaller target – the head vs the torso. The authors did not bring this up, but I also wondered while reading this study if exposure to the violent video game also reduced any inhibitions against doing violence against a humanoid (even if mannequin) target. We know from prior research, for example, that physicians lose their inhibitions of causing pain while performing a necessary procedure, like blood drawing.

The evidence that video game violence causes real world violence is an issue for another blog post, but the quick bottom line is that the evidence is mixed and controversial. There are some correlations, but not enough to establish cause and effect.

What this study is really about is training and transfer of skills from video games. It supports what common sense and prior research all indicate – transfer of skills is optimal when the training most closely resembles the task being trained.

25 responses so far

25 thoughts on “Video Game Violence”

  1. cwebb619 says:

    This make sense. When I was in the Army, stationed in South Korea a few years back, before we went to the range to qualify with our M-16, we went to a simulator. It was in an air conditioned building, which was nice during the hot and humid Korea summer. We used replica M-16’s and shot at a big screen down range about 30 feet with simulated targets popping up. We would shoot from various positions and when the range officer thought we had “mastered” the techniques, we went outside about 100 feet and shot real bullets at targets. I am not sure if it increased first time qualifying but I sure it had some effect.

  2. ConspicuousCarl says:

    THis paper brings up another issue, as in this interview with Ars Technica:

    “We don’t have a lot of control over how people interpret our findings,” Bushman told Ars. “Our responsibility is to do the most carefully conducted research we can and publish it in the best journals we can…

    Could they start by not titling their paper “Boom, Headshot!” when their best group of trainees only hit with 7 out of 16 rounds?

    Also interesting to note (and I hope I am not mislead by rumor here, as I don’t have real data handy) is that this sort of target shooting used for the real-world version of target shooting (compared to video games) is actually considered the fake-world version of actual violent events.

  3. Kaulpelly says:

    If this were picked up my the mainstream media outlets I’m sure a more definitive result would be attributed to the study and the article would be most likely peppered with references to school killings and other such atrocities.

    As we all know sensationalist headlines are always the low hanging fruit for the journalist looking spice up what is otherwise a fairly inconclusive study.

    What I was wondering is whether there is a similar disconnect between the relationship of headlines and content of the articles, and the issues with myths and their debunking (not a word we use I know) helping to reinforce the myth.

    It would be interesting to see a study that measured impressions of articles written on subjects like this that in respect to their headline. The same body of text which either went against the theme of the headline or agreed with it. I’d suspect a fairly biased interpretation of body of the article but that’s just a guess of course.

  4. With regard to the head shots, I’m curious if a more realistic risk-reward system might reduce the inclination towards head shots.

    In somewhat more realistic combat situations, head shots are typically discouraged because the smaller target is harder to hit, and the risk of a total miss of the head vs an off center hit to the body is an unharmed opponent firing back at you unimpeded.

    If the video game were written in such a way that successful head shots resulted in instant kills, but misses guaranteed the player received a fatal or at least severe hit/penalty, would the player still tend towards head shots?

    I almost never go for head shots in video games (unless head shots are easy in the game) or in competitive shooting and instead focus on the larger, more forgiving center of mass of the target.

  5. I just read the paper…

    Resident Evil 4, seriously? A third person game from 2005 that is not even considered a “shooter”? That is a bit of a strange choice for such an experiment; I suspect they were constrained by the limited choices of shooter type games for the wii. Also, considering that later in the game, head shots are a very bad idea, I suspect the participants were presented a fairly early portion of the game. Everyone I know who has played RE4 avoided head shots like the plague once a certain point was reached in the game. In regards to my previous comment, I’d be interested to see if they still went for head shots in the live shooting after playing later parts of the game.

    “Although causal inferences cannot be made, these findings indicate that people who habitually play violent shooting games are the most accurate shooters and aim for the head most often.”

    Not really, unless you have previously establish that the selected 20 mins of RE4 is representative of violent video games in general. The 20 min of RE4 played was likely not even representative of RE4, let alone other video games. Also, this statement ignores that fact that the vast majority of violent video games are not played with gun type controllers.

    “Violent shooting games positively and negatively reinforce firing a gun to kill enemies.”

    I’m not sure they demonstrated that for outside of video games anywhere in the study. They may have demonstrated that the video games can make one better at hitting a target and more likely to go for a head shot, but they did not demonstrate an increase in violent tendencies, unless you consider going for a head shot vs a body shot increased violence.

    ” Participants who played the violent game with the pistol-shaped controller shared two elements between the tasks, and they had more head shots on the target than participants who only shared one element (target type or controller type) or no elements in common with the firing task.”

    This is likely partly due to the fact that the shooting mechanics with a conventional controller in RE4 suck, and head shots are very difficult to pull off.

  6. elmer mccurdy says:

    The phalanx of enemy invaders moves laterally across a grid not much wider than itself. When it reaches the edge of the grid, the whole army lowers a notch. Rule one: narrow that phalanx. Before you do anything else, take out at least three enemy columns either on the left-hand side or the right (for Waves 1 and 2, the left is recommended). Thereafter the aliens will take much longer to cross their grid and slip down another rung. Keep on working from the sides: you’ll find that the invaders take forever to trudge and shuffle back and forth, and you can pick them off in your own sweet time.

  7. Bronze Dog says:

    I remember once having a conversation with a guy who was trying to argue that the Columbine kids learned how to shoot from specific videogames, none of which used a gun-like controller. I responded that (IIRC) they already had practice with real guns and that pushing buttons on a gamepad or keyboard does not train marksmanship. The most they’d probably get out of it would be some unrealistic tactical training. He backed off and apparently started questioning what he had heard.

    On the topic of headshots, I played Transformers: War for Cybertron as a sniper. I only went for headshots on stationary enemies. When they’re running around, going for headshots usually meant missing entirely. Going for the torso did more net damage because it’s easier to hit, and if I aimed too high, sometimes I’d get accidental headshots.

  8. Bronze Dog,

    that’s pretty much my experience in most video games that don’t have targeting assist.

    It’s also my experience in actual competitive shooting. In run and gun tactical competition, attempted head shots are a good way to get time penalties for missing a target unless there’s a Mozambique drill rule requiring at least one head shot.

  9. dogugotw says:

    This is totally non-scientific but my son and his friends played all sorts of video games in their teens. They played a lot and they were good. My son eventually landed in the back seat of an F/A 18F. His observation was that the aviators who played lots of video games were, at least initially, better at running the avionics than their non-gamer friends. In addition to the glass cockpit (very much a video game environment), their overall situational awareness was better. They were used to taking in multiple inputs, generating stategies, and talking to their buds all at the same time.

    I’m guessing that this phenomenon is even more true for the UAV pilots.

  10. HHC says:

    Video studies are artificial. Are the participants trying to imitate snipers? In my training, headshots were discouraged on the basis of one’s humanity to others.

  11. dwayne says:

    Not sure I buy it. I can play Farmville out the wazoo, but my real f***ing lettuce keeps dying!

  12. eiskrystal says:

    HHC, funny I would have thought the opposite would be true. Unless your idea of humanity is crippling someone for life.

  13. SteveA says:

    Karl Withakay: “Resident Evil 4…considering that later in the game, head shots are a very bad idea.”

    I have very limited experience of video games in general, but have played RE4 on the Wii multiple times. At what point in the game do head shots become a bad idea? It’s not a handicap that I ever noticed.

  14. SteveA,

    The point after the lake (ch 2-1) where you get the first plaga head. From this point on, head shots have a very high probability of producing plaga heads, which are a pain to deal with.

  15. Bronze Dog says:

    I watched an LP of RE4. Liennaslog had a lot of fun saying “tentacle” since she went for headshots most of the time, producing those plaga heads. Aside from that, she was annoyed that it often took multiple headshots to kill one of the infected. The sniper rifle was a notable exception.

  16. HHC says:

    eiskrystal, The point was that your current enemy could be maimed but still have a life after war.

  17. Neon Genesis says:

    So according to this study, given my long hours playing The Legend of Zelda, I should be an expert sword fighter already and Mario Kart Racing is the best tool for teaching kids how to drive.

  18. SteveA says:

    Karl Withakay: “The point after the lake (ch 2-1) where you get the first plaga head. From this point on, head shots have a very high probability of producing plaga heads, which are a pain to deal with.”

    Interesing. I figured a plaga would erupt from a dead host regardless of how the host died.

    I loved that game. I still shudder when I think of the Replicators.

  19. SteveA says:

    Sorry, Regenerators, not Replicators…

  20. SteveA,

    “Interesing. I figured a plaga would erupt from a dead host regardless of how the host died.”

    There is always a possibility of plaga erupting form any host, but it’s far more likely with head shots.

  21. Neon Genesis says:

    By the way, what happened to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe forums? They’ve been down for the last two days.

  22. Malavander says:

    This article is very careful to speak specifically about the mechanics of the interactive software being studied (shooters simulating human targets), as well as the input devices and how they matter. Focus is put on the tasks being performed rather than just the general activity of playing video games. Unfortunately, most journalism out there is not so careful. The sweeping generalization implied by a title like “video game violence” often continues throughout a piece.

    As a game developer, it’s annoying that some of the highest profile video games these days are the most violent ones (Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, etc.) When I was a kid, the first thing that popped into your head when someone said “video game” was Pac-man, Tetris, Q*Bert, etc. They were clearly games meant to be fun and whimsical, inspired by puzzles and games that came before computers.

    Often these days, when I tell laypeople and outsiders I work in the video game industry, even older ones seem to have suffered amnesia about the video games that are actually games instead of high-tech simulations. They assume every project in development these days involves exploding heads. They’re worried that if their kid plays too much Wii Sports or Angry Birds or Farmville (simply because they’re “video games”) they may become unruly.

    Violent video games may get a lot of attention but they’re still a small fraction of the industry. I would love to see a semantic distinction emerge between interactive entertainment products that are more like “simulations” and those that are more like classic “games” to help avoid the whole medium being hit with the stigma of being all about adolescent male power fantasies potentially influencing bad behavior.

    Plenty of game developers don’t care about cutting edge graphics technology or realistic rendering techniques and just want to make a fun game with pleasing aesthetics and intuitive usability. Call of Duty isn’t really a game like Tetris was a game. It’s more of a simulation. You could say there are two sub-industries now within video games – the game industry and the simulation industry – on opposite ends of a continuum with plenty of gray area in between. Each cares about different things and has access to many of the same tools but uses them in very different ways. Arguments can be had about how influential the cartoon violence of a Mario game can be, but most of the hubbub about violence should be directed toward the “simulation” industry, and by all means, come talk to the “game” industry about the brain-training skill concerns.

  23. Harker067 says:

    What I actually want to know is how long you can go from playing the game to shooting for there to still be this effect.

    The paper claims to have accounted for previous experience as a gamer which didn’t affect the findings. Many shooters reward aiming for the head so its not unreasonable to assume some of the subjects with previous experience played games that rewarded this behavior. Yet this didn’t show a significant correlation. This suggests to me a short term primeing affect and not necessarily a long term result. I’d be interested in seeing a similar experiment but where the time between playing the game and going to the shooting range was varied to see if this trend carries over into the future.

  24. Sanclus says:

    Wow! I just read through the study and I am amazed that time and money were spent on it. Just the opening line of this study alone weakened the entire argument: “Video games are excellent training tools.” There is zero evidence to support the assertion that playing video games, violent or otherwise, contributes in any way to real life violence. I can only guess that the reason for such a study is to feed into someone’s foregone conclusion, possibly supporting and solidifying the assertion that violent games lead to violent real-life acts. Acts of violence are emotional acts, even those that seem to be perpetuated by cold, unemotional individuals.
    With the evidence provided in this and similar studies, I can effectively calculate that a person going to Disneyland for two days, a person spending two days reading Grimm’s fairy-tales, a person spending two days walking through the woods, a person spending two days at a spa and a person spending two days playing a violent video game have the same probability of committing a violent act. Human behavior is complicated and not easily nailed down into neat little compartments, but this same type of argument has been used against every new form of media that has been released in the modern age. I can easily imagine that there were folks in ancient times who believed that the writing and reading of stone tablets led to violence too! I just wish there could be more time and money spent on legitimate science related to human behavior without resorting to studies of various forms of media and their effects.

  25. atg5108 says:

    I agree with Sanclus in the sense that this study does not correlate with acts of real life violence. It merely improves the subjects’ accuracies. Video game violence does stimulate the subject’s mind, but not in a way that it can transfer to real life situations. A lot of people often blame violent acts seen in children on video game violence. Children are a primary apprehension when it comes to violent video games because they are still growing and developing. They could interpret violence as something that is normal in society, but they do not or at least there are not any studies done to prove it. In a way, violence in real life would probably not give children, or people in general, the same brain stimulation that violence does in video games. In most video games, people become violent in order to achieve some sort of goal such as killing enemy soldiers to win a war or blowing up zombies to get to the next level. In reality, people do not feel as much, if any, form of self-achievement after committing such acts of violence because they are not rewarded. Overall, violence in a virtual reality setting cannot contribute to violence in real life.

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